The hidden election

Are they thinking what we're thinking? No, they're not. The politicians are fighting the wrong battles, says Andy McSmith, as voters around the country tell him what they really care about
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Indy Politics

Politicians are fond of statistics. Big numbers make big statements. They sound so authoritative. Really big numbers, like billions, have the double advantage of being weighty and beyond the reach of most people's experience. Politicians fight their battles with statistics.

Politicians are fond of statistics. Big numbers make big statements. They sound so authoritative. Really big numbers, like billions, have the double advantage of being weighty and beyond the reach of most people's experience. Politicians fight their battles with statistics.

Yesterday alone, we were offered £6bn - the amount that Gordon Brown said that the Conservatives would cut from public spending in their first year in government. From Michael Howard, speaking in Kent, we had 66, the number of tax increases he attributed to Labour, and 235,000 "bureaucrats" in line for the sack under a Tory government.

When Howard was Home Secretary in 1995, he was challenged on the number of illegal immigrants in the country and replied: "By its very nature, illegal immigration is difficult to measure." Yesterday, however, he confidently asserted that there are 250,000 failed asylum-seekers now in the UK.

However, there is a very, small round number that has resonance for someone like Reg Keys. Zero. That is the exact number of weapons of mass destruction uncovered in Iraq since Baghdad was captured by US troops. It matters to Mr Keys because his son, L/Cpl Tom Keys, is also a statistic - one of 87 British servicemen killed in Iraq since that "victory".

Tony Blair does not believe that Iraq should determine the way people vote on 5 May. Many people who opposed the war will vote for him anyway, and some who supported it will vote for other parties, he told The Independent last week.

But Mr Keys thinks it should affect how people vote, so he is running as an independent in Mr Blair's own Sedgefield constituency, hoping to make the Prime Minister pay the ultimate political penalty for involving British troops in the conflict. His campaign is more serious than the usual maverick bid to embarrass Mr Blair on his home territory: he has celebrity backing, and has experienced, disenchanted Labour activists working with him.

"If Tom had been killed by WMD I wouldn't be here," he said, after The Independent on Sunday met up with him in the Fighting Cocks pub in the village of Middleton St George, near Darlington.

"But he was killed in an illegal war. When Tom marched off down the platform at the railway station on his way to Iraq I thought I was handing him over to a responsible government - not one that would use him as a political pawn.

"Tony Blair says we must move on, but there has to be accountability in politics. He is still in post."

Iraq has been a catalyst for the break-up of what used to be a Muslim block vote in Britain, delivered by local community leaders, usually to the Labour Party.

Whitechapel, with a large Bengali and Muslim immigrant community, should be a natural Labour heartland - but our meeting with Friday worshippers at the east London mosque showed that the "war on terror" and the perception that Muslims and Islam are being stigmatised have started a backlash, much of it directed personally at Tony Blair.

That has in turn politicised previously uninterested local youths. Shahan Alom, 25, is unemployed but was a community worker mentoring young offenders. "I probably represent more of the young Muslims in this constituency who weren't particularly active at the last election. Last time I didn't think it was worthwhile voting. But this has changed. I'm going to vote Respect. I'm sick of Labour."

Others were less sure of their of their voting intentions, but none of the group volunteered that he would vote Labour.

So, what about Tony Blair's standing at the opposite end of the social scale, on the Islington dinner circuit? When the Islington smart set rallied to Labour after Mr Blair was elected party leader, people knew he was a winner. Now, that small but conspicuous constituency is wavering, as The Independent on Sunday found when we eavesdropped on a conversation in Frederick's, off Upper Street, where Mr Blair used to eat when he was shadow home secretary.

These diners were enthusiasts for the Blair project eight years ago, but not any more. The talk - over claret, Rully Blanc and a Tokaji rose dessert wine, sweet chilli duck, onion tart with cress, crab to start, grilled Welsh lamb chops, calves' liver, Dover sole, followed by black cherry tart and knickerbocker glory - ranged across conspiracy theories, topical books, and celebrated court cases, but Iraq was the main cause of their disillusionment.

They did not necessarily go along with the crude idea that the Prime Minister lied over those Iraqi weapons. "I find it very difficult to use language like 'lies' and 'arrogance' about someone," said Anna Lobbenberg, 36, a former teacher in a state secondary school, now looking after her three-year-old son. "But his job was to make sure that the information he had was correct and he should have questioned it far more than he did. So I don't think that makes him a liar. I think it makes him a disappointing manager of our country."

"Tony Blair has morphed into a Labour Thatcher," Steven Loud, an Islington GP, claimed. Barrister Ernest James added: "Why doesn't he just go?"

Another great unspoken issue of this election is the environment, and with it, global warming. Mr Blair has called it "probably the most important issue that we face" - a sentiment Michael Howard has echoed.

But if they are really taking it that seriously, they have not yet convinced visitors to the Woods Mill Nature Reserve - 15 acres of lake, ancient woodland, reed beds and a historic flower meadow which is home to a rich variety of wildlife, and the headquarters of the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

These people recognise that they should do what they can in their lives not to waste resources or spread pollution, and wish that their political leaders would do their bit, too.

They especially wish that Mr Blair would use his hard-earned credit with the Americans to persuade the nation that is by far the world's greatest polluter to clean itself up.

When The Independent on Sunday spoke to them yesterday, their sense of disillusionment and powerlessness was palpable.

Kathy Green, a gardener from Hurstpierpoint, East Sussex, said: "I honestly believe that governments, especially this one, pay lip service to the environment but don't produce the goods." Ian Betts, a software designer from Small Dole near Henfield added: "Local environmental issues are pushed under the carpet."

"If you go anywhere around the country you can't recognise it because it has been concreted and built over and all the places you used to hold dear have been ruined," said Ken Finn, a writer from Brighton.

Labour could still scrape through an election, of course, even if they sacrificed the support of all the people who care about wildlife enough to visit a nature reserve at a weekend, or who dine out in Islington. They could even keep most of their seats without any support from Muslims.

But school-gate mums rule. The 30-something mother, battling to run an orderly home and make ends meet, may not think she has political power, but all those mothers together wield formidable voting power, which makes the politicians treat them with immense respect.

Last week, Cherie Blair paid homage to school gate power during a visit to the World's End Junior School, Birmingham, when she let slip that she has arranged for little Leo Blair to have a packed lunch, because school dinners are "not terrific".

That put rocket fuel into husband Tony's campaign to be the Prime Minister who cares about school dinners. All those mothers who weigh up the inconvenience of packed lunches against the complaints about school food know that Cherie has the same dilemma, and can hope that one day every school will be serving dinners that are good enough for Leo.

But when The Independent on Sunday called at Duncombe Primary School in north London to discuss the election, school meals were not on anyone's political menu. The mothers' concerns were exactly those everyday issues that wise politicians regard as the determining factors in any election - minus the statistics, of course. Their remarks vividly illustrate how Labour has kept its strong lead in the polls. "Hard-working families", to borrow a phrase intoned regularly by Labour politicians, feel better off.

"I am a 100 per cent Labour man. You should have seen this place four years ago. Money has poured in and now it is transformed," said Anatol Mayasi, one of the fathers delivering a child to the school.

"I lived abroad for years and the only reason I returned is because of this school. Education is so important but teachers are still underpaid," said Fatima Bastoni.

Or, as 32-year- old Christina Adamou put it: "Money's the main concern. Anyone that say it isn't is lying."

So after all that has been said about immigration, and crime statistics, terrorists and Muslims, about brave young men dying in Iraq, or carbon dioxide pouring into the atmosphere, hospital superbugs, Turkey Twizzlers or whether you can trust Tony Blair, for most people the answer is still, as Bill Clinton put it, "the economy, stupid".